“On the organization of #bioinformatics core services…”

Paul Blaser tweets this:

On the organization of #bioinformatics core services in biology-based research institutes – http://goo.gl/zFjjD

It’s an Advanced Access editorial item in Bioinformatics, and it describes some key features of bioinformatics support service organizations. And can I just say, AMEN!

As we do workshops around the country, we see a wide–WIDE–range of what bioinformatics support means. It can be one person in the library, to a large “big data” group that is also supposed to support local researchers somehow, while doing their own research. And don’t even get me started on the big name institutions that have really left their staff drift with essentially no support. Sigh. And the range of needs is huge–from microscopy imaging to handling next-gen data and everything in between. The species range is huge–and sometimes meta. But if we could get the average bench biologists up to speed on some tools they could solve a lot of their own issues. And then be more effective users of advanced support with more complex questions that go further.

Anyway: this is a nice piece that people should use as support to create a bioinformatics core. The ideas look quite sound to me. And my favorite parts were:

6. One of the key missions of the bioinformatics is to provide training to
biologists at a basic level….

[and]

7. It is useful to nominate a bioinformatics support person, whose task is
to guide users in the use of public bioinformatics tools and databases
as well as tools and methods developed within the institute.

And we can help with this, you know. You don’t have to create all these materials yourself. There is no reason that everyone around the world needs to re-create Introduction to the UCSC Genome Browser. You could roll out a weekly seminar on a tool starting tomorrow using our slides. Save your energy for the custom questions and the local issues.  Or you can learn from the Khan Academy experience that he recently described in his TED talk–people like the movies because they can learn on their own time:  Salman Khan: Let’s use video to reinvent education. And with this model you don’t spend time doing the lecturing. They’ve seen the lecture, you spend the time on the exercises (which we give you, and you can supplement with local issues) and their questions….

The “embedded” person described in the editorial is a cool position for someone too. I’ve been in that role, and I really liked being the bridge between the biology and the computational side. And here’s a pro-tip: people don’t like to feel like they are imposing on your time if you aren’t a designated support person. And they can tell when you are talking down to them, but they often need more basic level info that some people want to provide. They’ve told us that is how their local folks sometimes make them feel.  Also: there’s a big difference between giving them theory (which is fine), and actually using the software tools. It’s funny to come into the situations as outsiders, actually–people tell us stuff they don’t tell their colleagues ;)

Kallioniemi, O., Wessels, L., & Valencia, A. (2011). On the organization of bioinformatics core services in biology-based research institutes. Bioinformatics DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btr125